Sunday, January 8, 2017

Act. Your.Adjective.

For most of your life, including well into the present day, you've been told to act your age. When you first heard this request, you were young enough for the advice to cancel itself out; you were acting your age. Even then, you understood that friends and adults in some position or other over your education wished for you to act older than your age.

They meant for you to bring your behavior skills into a closer range to your intellectual and perceptual skills. They wanted you to act older than your age. What they truly wished was for you to become serious.

When you put on a few years, the suggestion for you to act your age began to change into the question, When are you going to get serious?  You never intended to emulate Peter Pan. You looked forward to growing up. You liked the concept of maturation. You wished to be the verb mature and its adjective. But you wished to do so on your own terms, which had nothing to do with seriousness.

You wished to engage mature as verb and adjective with a low ratio of seriousness, little more than twenty percent against an eighty percent of mischief, humor, and the ability to see the wry anomalies and ironies in full bloom everywhere you looked.  

Your hopes for this ratio of seriousness to mischief were dashed when you became distracted by the tools you'd thought to use to make your way in the world. Those tools were words. If you'd gone on about your business with the thought of words as tools, you'd doubtless saved yourself time. You used words to disguise your lack of seriousness, thinking that longer sentences, a taste for recondite vocabulary, and a dash of arcane factoids would convince everyone about you that you were serious.

But you were not serious at all, you were that one quality every writer dreads. You were boring.

Even now, when you still have issues about acting your age, the antennae of awareness you've developed over the years pick up hints that you have stepped over the threshold to the point where you project attitudes, words, and thoughts that bore.

By now, you've developed skills, not so remarkable as a hound who can nose out truffles, but still abilities that allow you to sniff out the words that cloud the issue of what you wish to say and how you say it. In the process, you're learning how seriousness can be a useful pose for slipping a subversive tract into an unsuspecting mailbox.

Saturday, January 7, 2017


Questions to ask self:

1. What does each of your sentences say?

2. How do you know what each sentence says?

3. How reliable is the voice that dictates these sentences to you?

4. Do your sentences listen to each other?

5.  What is your goal when you write sentences?

6.  Are you able to say all the things you intended to say?

7.  Do your sentences produce the bonus of things you did not know you could say?

This list compels you to address your sentences with the sense of adventure, anticipation, and confidence you use when you approach the gas range in the kitchen at dinner time.

The list says nothing about the matter of writing prompts, which you see as insincere motherfuckers, looking to insure you you're about to write something of consequence. In truth, when you write to prompt, the result is often insincere.

If you'd had something of consequence to say, you wouldn't have needed a prompt to start you writing.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Child's Game

The writer who lounges in the "I love words" state of writing remains as a child so far as any measure of technical proficiency is concerned. 

She professes a love for the sounds of words for their own sake, the gurgle and swish of some words, the poetic ambience of other words, and yet other sounds that remind of bodily functions, snoring and sneezing, hiccoughing, and gasping in their biological ways.

This professed love, you have come to believe, is an excuse, a Maginot Line of defense against the apparent enemy, which, we soon learn, is story. "Why, anyone could tell a story, but how many can tell a proper one, in the proper way?"

What professional writers, even lazy or downright bad ones, do not like words? The glare of reductionism is bright with this revelation. What ball player dislikes balls? What dancer loathes music? To push the matter to the edge of the table, what scientist dislikes hypotheses? To sweep the matter off the table and into free fall, what librarian hates books?

The writer who loves story is the star in your galaxy of wonders; she fucking knows where she is, where the parts go, the sentences sound, and the feelings resonate as though a wine glass rim, flicked to sound its magical spell.

And yet they come forth, those who love words, eyes aglow with the memory of some memorized poem, eager to ignore the story that waves its arms to be heard, eager for some susurru, some intimation of sequestration, some stentorian tone or opalescent glint of the wing of some phantasm.

"Oh, yes, story," they tell you with a faint curl of the lower lip, "that thrift-shop appurtenance, so in need of poetic enhancement and metaphoric allusion to make it acceptable.  

Of course it is a child's game to love words at that level. We suffer their patronizing arrogance, waiting for them to do the thing they must do if they are to write with vital effect, and particularly for young readers such as the ones we once were when we rushed to catch the departing train; we wait for them to grow. Up.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Getting Person-al

Some of your favorite stories are told in the first-person narrative form, thus Huck Finn and the destined-for-greater-things Mr. Pip, or, indeed, that rather long winded Ishmael,where a character comes forth to relate a series of trials, tribulations, and accelerated risk.

Most such stories remind the reader they are not the author, speaking directly to them, rather they are the impressions and sensitivities of a character the author has invented to filter the dramatic information forth.

Is there some of Huck's author within him, one traces of Dickens in Pip, some aspects of Melville embedded within Ishmael? To be sure, there are traces, but the author has with some deliberation contrived a filter with a finite vocabulary, vision of reality, and range of emotional experiences that provide governing factors for that character's narration.

Your observations of such stories lead you to believe the first-person point of view, more often than not, signifies a cautionary tale to follow. Even Frank Chambers' confessional first-person rendition of The Postman Always Rings Twice , although straightforward in its confessional intent, fits the designation of cautionary; here is Frank, warning us not to be so carried away and caught up as he was with Cora.

Beginning writers seem to you not to have spent much time pondering their choice of first person except to respond, when asked, that first-person narration seems somehow more natural and personal, two attributions that don't advance a clearer picture  of how or why that natural and personal state is achieved, if, indeed, they provide a picture of how the naturalness and personal-based provide the alleged closeness or authenticity.

Nor can beginning writers always tell you why one character from the ensemble cast of characters in a tale is chosen to step forward as the narrative filter.

You are fond in equal measure of stories rendered in the third-person point of view, the he.she approach. Even more so, you enjoy the multiple point of view, such as Wilkie Collins' famed The Moonstone, in which a group of individuals, often from different social strata, convey their impressions of a singular event.

If, as you believe, first-person POV cautions, then it must follow that third or multiple are chosen more with the intent of illustrating potential outcomes and their interpretations rather than flat-out warning against their pursuit.

The difference between a warning and an illustration, to borrow an observation from your highly regarded Mark Twain, is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug ("The right word--not it's second cousin."). 

Because of another recent expression of your believe relating to beginning writers, wherein writers who love words (more than they love story) are still playing in the kiddies' sandbox, writers who chose first person for their narratives (rather than allowing the narrative to dictate the individual(s) to do so) have yet to attend any significant graduation ceremony.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


Storytelling requires strategy, gambit, and a propensity to bluff.

On a scale of one to ten, you doubtless rank somewhere around a minus three or four when the matter turns to chess, a game you admire, even respect, but are not proficient in it. At least your one or two on the scale of ten, as applied to baseball, was supplemented with your greater understanding of strategies and nuances. 

Right-handed player that you were, you knew, for instance, when undertaking to catch a fly ball to your favored center field position, to make every effort to make the catch with your weight favoring your right foot. This move facilitated an extra moment of advantage when, coming forward with your weight now transferred to your left foot, you were nearly synchronized with your catch and your subsequent throw to the appropriate baseman, a strategy to prevent a base runner from advancing after the catch. Not on your watch.

You have no such strategy for chess, even though you did, as a much younger person, devour tracts and pamphlets depicting famous chess openings and gambits from championship chess matches of the iconic past. Thus your awareness of the Ruy Lopez, Giuoco Piano, and Budapest Gambits and the sense of entering a game of chess with some secret potential of a midge strategy coming to you in ways similar to the way complications or solutions to dramatic gambits come to you when you are at composition.

The last time you played chess was with the closest thing to a best friend possible, your goal being able to say something that had been said to you on numerous occasions and which you have always had a wish to be able to say as a result of one of your splendid opening gambits and inspired launch into an effective middle game.

As you visualize the scenario, you'd have to be at least ten moves into a game, perhaps even exchanged a piece or two, sacrificed a piece for position, or lost a piece because you'd been finessed. At such a point, you could add a furrow or two to your already furrowed brow, advance a knight or bishop with a flourish, plunk it into its intended place, then say, "That's mate in four moves."

In this last game with your dear friend, you were, at his insistence, initiating a chess board and  non-representational--which is to say abstract--pieces, holding your own beyond the first several moves, but having no mid-game strategy in mind, much less any hope of an end game. 

Of a sudden, you saw an opening diagonal that would allow you a dramatic sweep for a bishop and an opportunity to put forth what you quickly decided to call a gambit named after you, The Bluff Gambit.

Of a piece with a dandy, shooting his shirt cuff beyond the sleeve of his jacket, you lifted the bishop, drew it across the board, then plunked it into place. "That should be mate in five," you said, hoping you'd managed to intimate the inevitability of your statement.

"Really?" Your friend said. "I-I'm afraid I don't see it. We'll have to play it out, because I was about to warn you--unless you're sure."

There was only one way out. "Of course," you said, tipping your king over in a time-honored gesture of resignation. "It would have been five for me, but I can see now that you'd have had me in four."

That said, you were bordering on a much more meaningful personal gambit--the Bluff Gambit for leaving the dramatic scene you entered with such a cunning flair.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Ave Atque Tee Hee

You like to think of yourself among other things as a clearing house for ideas. In this clearing-house-atmosphere, the useful ideas ideas are shunted off to a processing center, the metaphysical equivalent of the 24/7 you who, even in his sleep, processes useful ideas while discarding those of a patently awful or even merely questionable nature.

There is a special place in this clearing house of ideas, a place in metaphor every bit as notional and undisciplined as your desk or, for that matter, sub-set desk Number One, which is the kitchen table, and sub-set desk Number Two, which is the entire back storage compartment of your Prius, for pending ideas, matters that have caused you great leaps of interest and even joy, but, as yet, no resolution.

This is attitudinal background to your recent awareness that most men and some women, eulogized in New York Times obituaries, are said to have had senses of humor, almost as though one who did not have a sense of humor, or who was represented instead as a person of, say, principal, or honor, might find difficulty being included within the obituary pages.

Even more to the point, you recently read the obituary of an individual you knew, one who had walked the rainbow bridge in the past week or so. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but you saw this individual more as stubborn, a control freak, bordering on the intransigent. Nevertheless, there he was, hailed in his eulogy as a person of great humor.

One corpse does not make a Friars' Roast anymore than one robin makes a spring. In fairness, you have in any number of occasions failed to see the inherent humor of an event and have been singled out for concerns that you indeed tend to find humor in places where there is none.

In a course of thought that brings you certain discomfort, you've noted how the more physical aspects of humor, which is to say comedy, achieve their effect by giving us a victim we can laugh at, relieved we are not the victim. 

Most deaths sadden you, John Donne and the bell tolling for thee and so on; you're sorry to see the departed depart, change form, recycle. Some deaths produce in you a sense of schadenfreude, which is in effect a satellite in orbit about a sun, a sense of justice of some sort having been done in some sort of way.

Now, you find yourself fretting over the conundrum of how some individuals, merely by virtue of death, are invested with a sense of humor when, in life, they may might have had no such asset.  No mistaking the fact for you, humor is an asset. While you're on the subject, death isn't.

The wheels are set in motion for you to ponder their rotation. 

Monday, January 2, 2017


At one point in your career, you ran the Los Angeles office of a major massmarket publisher that happened among other things to be the reprint publisher of the iconic storyteller, Elmore Leonard. Thus, when he saw your face among the blur of strangers at a yearly event once called The American Bookseller's Association Convention, there was more than mere recognition. You'd become a life preserver. "Do you think you could find me some coffee?" he said.

What followed was a conversation that apparently stuck with us both because within it, you'd expressed admiration for a character of his named Ernest "Stick" Sticky, Jr., to which Leonard made the observation, "Coincidental you mention that. He's been speaking a lot to me lately and I'm thinking he wants his own book."

Cut to the future, when you were no longer in favor with the major massmarket publisher and were pursuing, as it is often said, other options. Some of these options, writing short stories (which had been your default plan for being happy and making a living), for instance, had been influenced in no small measure by that conversation with Leonard. Indeed, you began forthwith to spend time listening to your characters, in consequence of which you'd begun to place the kinds of stories you'd always believed you had it within you to write. In particular, you'd had one editor, John Milton of the estimable South Dakota Review, telling you "I guess you're one of my regulars now."

Somewhere within that future, your cherished friend, Barnaby Conrad, had encountered Leonard as a friend, in further consequence of which, Leonard would on occasion come to Santa Barbara to appear as a speaker at Conrad's glorious toy, the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, where you were able to have a continuation of the conversation about Ernest Sticky, Jr., who, indeed, had "talked" his way into his own book, Stick.

Perhaps because Leonard knew you'd also followed his Western stories, he began telling you of another instance in which he sought an appropriate name for a jailer in one of his Western stories, found nothing that satisfied him, then had significant problems wringing convincing dialogue from the character. Leonard went on to tell of having gone through a contemporary newspaper account, originally published in a newspaper from the Arizona Territory (which would have dated the story back at least as far as 1912, whence Arizona achieved statehood.

The story gave a quote from a prison guard named Bob Isham, on which Leonard pounced. That became the name for his character. "And you know something," Leonard said, "I couldn't keep the garrulous old son of a bitch quiet after that."

In significant measure accurate in details, the previous paragraphs become an adjective your literary agent made you swear you would not use in any copy you submitted to her. The adjective was prologaminous, or, "somehow related to the prologues of fiction and dramatic nonfiction."

The previous paragraphs came rushing back to you as you recall your recent encounter with a typographical error you were correcting on a manuscript you'd begun as a procrastination from a project you've been working on, need to finish, and realize, from a review of the last page, that a bit of the lackluster had set in. Writing things that intrigue and delight you are sure ways to energize your writing persona to the point where, once again, you are not sure which (as opposed to what) mischiefs will come pouring forth.  Memo to self: Always write as though about to allow a mischief to slip through the cracks. Saner persons than you will rush to strike them out, but even then your prose will have that level of impudence you favor.

In repairing the typographical error on your procrastination project, you somehow caused your protagonist to become not only himself--Benjamin C. Bloom--but Benjamin C. Bloom, Jr, which meant he had a father whom you'd not previously considered and now must.  Since you knew, thanks to your quirky memory, of an actual individual with the name Benjamin and the middle initial C. (a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Benjamin Cardozo), it made sense for your fictional Benjamin C. Bloom to be an attorney and a professor of law.

On such trivialities is fiction shunted into life.  Suppose, you told yourself, that your fictional Benjamin Cardozo Bloom had actually been born Benjamin M. (for Maurice) Bloom, but had furtively changed the M. to a C. That one little typographical counterfeit could have an enormous effect on generations to come.

Indeed.  And what's so special about M-for-Maurice?  Couldn't  hurt to have a smattering of knowledge of U.S. theatrical history in which one of the great stalwarts of that institution had the same effect on history as Benjamin Cardozo had on American jurisprudence.  Of course you knew all about Maurice Barrymore, sire of the great Barrymore acting family.

As Elmore Leonard said of Bob Isham...

You are well into one hundred pages of the procrastination, haunted by the sounds of its characters, wailing and moaning at you as you attempt to tread the warp and weft of your daily Reality.